Stretching credulity

Fed Chairman, Jay Powell says the US economy is strong.

But they have cut interest rates three times this year.

And it’s all hands to the pump below decks. The Fed expanded their balance sheet by $288 billion since September and broad money (MZM plus time deposits) growth has almost doubled to $1.4 trillion this year.

Fed Assets and Broad Money Growth

Donald Trump says that a Phase 1 trade deal has been settled with China.

But the two parties can’t seem to agree on whether China’s agricultural purchases are part of the deal (China is reluctant to commit to a $ amount).

Nor can they recall whether rolling back tariffs was part of the deal. China would like to think so but Trump is now threatening to increase tariffs if a deal isn’t signed.

Fundamentals show that activity is contracting. Industrial production is falling.

Fed Assets and Broad Money Growth

Freight shipments are contracting.

Cass Freight Shipments

And retail sales growth is declining.

Advance Retail Sales

Yet Dow Jones Industrials just broke 28,000 for the first time, while Trend Index troughs above zero show long-term buying pressure.

Dow Jones Industrial Average

Paul Tudor Jones

“Explosive” is the right word.

Ultra-low interest rates may lead to a ‘debt trap’

The highly-regarded Stephen Bartholomeusz warns that central bank policies may lead to a ‘debt trap’:

“….With the world apparently re-starting the use of unconventional monetary policies even before central banks have extricated themselves from the legacies of a decade of those policies, there is a real risk that the impacts and the threats posed by their side effects will swell and that the world will be caught within what the BIS has previously described as a “debt trap’’ with no exit.

The other disturbing aspect of the [BIS] report is that it repeatedly says it is too early to assess the longer-term implications of the policies the central banks have employed.

Central bankers respond to the latest data – they respond to short-term signals – but the side-effects of their post-crisis policies have already been building for a decade and will continue to build while they maintain ultra-low or negative policy rates and keep buying bonds and other fixed interest securities to depress longer-term interest rates and suppress risk premia.

How those side-effects are unwound and how the banks extricate themselves from their policies and the legacies of those policies won’t be known until they try, but the potential for another crisis has been increased by the big surge in global leverage and the elevated asset prices the policies have encouraged.

Negative rates and quantitative easing and variations on those themes might, as the BIS report says, be useful additions to central bankers’ toolboxes but the past decade has shown they aren’t by themselves a panacea for economic ills and they bring with them potentially unpleasant side effects the longer they are in place.”

Debt traps occur when the interest rate needed to service the government debt is greater than the growth rate of GDP, according to former Fed governor Robert Heller:

“…In such a situation, debt service obligations grow more rapidly than the economy; eventually, the accumulated debt can no longer be serviced properly. In other words, the dynamics of the situation become unsustainable and a death spiral ensues.”

So far, central banks have responded by driving interest rates to record lows but unintended consequences are emerging, with low interest rates leading to low GDP growth. A feedback loop is emerging:

    • Low interest rates

Australia: 10-Year Bond Yield

    • Low bank interest margins

Australia: Bank Net Interest Margins

    • Low credit growth

Australia: Credit & Broad Money Growth

    • Low inflation

Australia: Underlying Inflation

    • And low economic growth

Australia: GDP Growth

We are venturing where angels fear to tread: central banks trialing new policies without empirical evidence as to their long-term consequences.

Monetary policy should be administered judiciously, intervening only when the financial system is in dire straits, outside the realm of the regular business cycle. Instead monetary policy is treated as a panacea, the constant drip-feed building a long-term dependence on further stimulus.

The problem with ‘traps’ is that they are difficult to escape.

“If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.”

~ Will Rogers

[NOTE: I should clarify that Australia has relatively low fiscal debt and is not in any immediate danger of a debt trap. But the ‘lucky country’ would suffer severely from fallout if the US or China were caught in a debt trap.]

Predicting recessions with payroll and unemployment data

Recessions are notoriously difficult to measure (even the NBER occasionally gets it wrong) and an official declaration of a recession may be lagged by more than 6 months. Economist Claudia Sahm devised the Sahm Rule, using changes in unemployment levels, as a more timely predictor of recessions.

Sahm rule: US Data

But the signal repeatedly lags the official start date of recessions by several months, limiting its usefulness for investment purposes.

In previous articles I observed that payroll growth is a good predictor of recessions. But payroll growth has been declining for decades; so it has been difficult to devise a one-size-fits-all-recessions rule. Until I turned to using momentum.

Twiggs Momentum is my own variation on the standard momentum formula and I applied this to monthly payroll data to arrive at a 3-month TMO.

Sweden: Sahm rule

The orange band on the above chart reflects the amber warning range, between 0.5% and 0.3%, where recession is likely. If TMO crosses below the red line at 0.3%, risk of recession increases to very high.

When the TMO falls below 0.5%, a recession is likely, but there is one false reading at 0.49% in 1986. So I treat 0.5% as an amber warning level.

There are no false signals below 0.3% in the last 50 years. So I treat the 0.3% level as a red warning — that recession risk is very high.

Some of the signals (e.g. 1975) are late but the TMO has a far better record, than the Sahm Rule, at giving timely warning of recessions.

The August 2019 TMO reading is an amber warning of 0.5%.

Australian residential construction to decline until 2021 | ABC

One of Australia’s largest cement and construction materials producers, Adelaide Brighton Ltd (ABC), announced their half year results today. The media statement contains a decidedly bearish outlook for the housing market.

ABC logo

Operational Review

Demand for construction materials slowed further during the period. Australian residential construction approvals declined more than 25% on seasonally adjusted terms for the six months to June 2019 and residential construction is forecast to continue to decline until 2021, until it returns to growth. However, the Company expects both mining and infrastructure to increase demand for construction materials in the near term. Capacity expansion in iron ore and gold production, along with the reopening of nickel capacity, will increase the demand for both cement and lime in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Outlook

For the balance of 2019, Adelaide Brighton expects demand for construction materials to:

  • Weaken in east coast markets and South Australia, until the commencement of further planned infrastructure projects;
  • Remain stable in the Northern Territory and Western Australia;
  • Improve in the lime business as a result of increased gold and nickel production in Western Australia; and
  • Increase in concrete and aggregates due to more available work days, seasonality and volumes generated via Scotchy Pocket quarry.

Auction clearance rates in Sydney and Melbourne have improved but sales volumes remain low. We have witnessed recent improvement in consumer attitudes towards housing investment but whether this translates into increased activity will depend on:

    • APRA’s macro-prudential controls on bank lending;

Australia Housing Credit

  • The global economy;
  • Impact of the trade war on China’s economy; and
  • Domestic employment prospects.

Australia Unemployment & Underemployment

S&P 500: Treasuries reflect flight to safety

10-Year Treasury yields plunged below 2.0% on Donald Trump’s announcement of further tariffs (10% on $300bn) on China. The fall reflects rising demand for Treasuries as a safe haven in these turbulent times.

10-Year Treasury Yield

The spread between 10-Year and 3-Month Treasuries recovered above zero. This is a bearish sign: recession normally follows the recovery and not the initial inversion.

10-Year 3-Month Treasury Spread

The S&P 500 retreated below 3000 on Trump’s announcement, strengthening the bearish divergence signal on Twiggs Money Flow which warns of a correction. A test of support at 2750 is likely.

S&P 500

The Russell 2000 ETF (IWM) is expected to test primary support at 145. Small cap stocks have lagged the S&P 500 this year, highlighting risk aversion.

Russell 2000 Small Caps Index

Dow Jones Euro Stoxx 600, reflecting large cap stocks in the European Union, is similarly headed for a test of primary support at 365. Strong bearish divergence on the Trend Index warns of a reversal.

DJ Euro Stoxx 600

Falling commodity prices reflect market concerns for the global economy. A Nymex Light Crude breach of $51/barrel would signal a primary down-trend. Declining peaks on the Trend Index warn of selling pressure.

Nymex Light Crude

The DJ-UBS Commodity Index is similarly headed for a test of support at 75. Breach would signal a primary down-trend. A peak near zero on the Trend Index warns of strong selling pressure.

DJ-UBS Commodity Index

Dr Copper, often used as a barometer of the global economy, has breached primary support at 5800, signaling a decline. Again, a Trend Index peak below zero warns of strong selling pressure.

Copper

Employment stats for July have improved slightly, with Average Hourly Wages growth easing to 3.3% (Total Private).

Average Hourly Wage

And annual payroll growth ticked up to 1.5%

Employment Growth & FFR

But weekly hours worked are declining, warning that real GDP will decline further, after printing 2.3% for the second quarter.

Real GDP & Weekly Hours Worked

I have warned my clients to cut exposure to the market. It’s a good time to be cautious.

“Price is what you pay; value is what you get.”

~ Benjamin Graham

Rate cuts and buybacks – the emperor’s new clothes

The interest rate outlook is softening, with Fed chairman Jerome Powell hinting at rate cuts in his Wednesday testimony to Congress:

“Our baseline outlook is for economic growth to remain solid, labor markets to remain strong and inflation to move back over time.”
but…. “Uncertainties about the outlook have increased in recent months. In particular, economic momentum appears to have slowed in some major foreign economies and that weakness could affect the US economy.”

Stephen Bartholomeusz at The Sydney Morning Herald comments:

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Fed shifting into an easing cycle before there is strong evidence to warrant it, is economies already stuck in high debt and low growth environments will be forced even deeper into the kind of policies that in Japan have produced more than 30 years of economic winter with no apparent escape route.”

If the Fed moves too early they could further damage global growth, with long-term consequences for US stocks. But markets are salivating at the anticipated sugar hit from lower rates. Stocks surged in response to Powell’s speech, with the S&P 500 breaking resistance at 3000. A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure.

S&P 500

The argument for higher stock prices is that lower interest rates may stave off a recession. The chart below shows how recessions (gray bars) are normally preceded by rising interest rates (green) followed by sharp cuts when employment growth (blue) starts to fall.

Fed Funds Rate & Payroll Growth

Rate cuts themselves are not a recession warning, unless accompanied by declining employment growth. Otherwise, as in 1998 when there was minimal impact on employment, the economy may recover. Falling employment growth is, I believe, the most reliable recession warning. So far, the decline in growth has been modest but should be monitored closely.

Falling employment is why recessions tend to lag an inverted yield curve (negative 10-year minus 3-month Treasury yield spread) by up to 18 months. The negative yield curve is a reliable warning of recessions only because it reflects the Fed response to rising inflation and then falling employment.

Yield Spread

Valuations

A forward Price-Earnings ratio of 19.08 at the end of June 2019 warned that stocks are highly priced relative to forecast earnings. The forward PE  jumped to 19.55 by Friday — an even stronger warning.

S&P 500 Forward Price-Earnings Ratio

June 2019 trailing Price-Earnings ratio at 21.52 warned that stock prices are dangerously high when compared to the 1929 and 1987 peaks preceding major crashes. That has now jumped to 22.04.

S&P 500 Price-Earnings (based on highest trailing earnings)

The only factor that could support such a high earnings multiple is unusually strong earnings growth.

But real corporate earnings are declining. Corporate profits, before tax and adjusted for inflation, are below 2006 levels and falling. There are still exceptional stocks that show real growth but they are counter-balanced by negative real growth in other stocks.

Corporate Profits before tax adjusted for Inflation

Impossible, you may argue, given rising earnings for the S&P 500.

S&P 500 Earnings

There are three key differences that contribute to earnings per share growth for the S&P 500:

  1. Inflation;
  2. Taxes; and
  3. Stock Buybacks.

Inflation is fairly steady at 2.0%.

GDP Implicit Price Deflator & Core CPI

Quarterly tax rates declined from 25% in Q3 2017 to 13.22% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Quarterly Tax Rates

Stock buybacks are climbing. The buyback yield for the S&P 500 rose to 3.83% in Q4 2018 (source: S&P Dow Jones Indices).

S&P 500 Buyback Yield

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act caused a surge in repatriation of offshore cash holdings — estimated at almost $3 trillion — by multinationals. And a corresponding increase in stock buybacks.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Earnings

In summary, the 2018 surge in S&P 500 earnings is largely attributable to tax cuts and Q1 2019 is boosted by a surge in stock buybacks in the preceding quarter.

Buybacks plus dividends exceed current earnings and are unsustainable in the long run. When the buyback rate falls, and without further tax cuts, earnings growth is going to be hard to find. Like the emperor’s new clothes.

It’s a good time to be cautious.

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

~ Warren Buffett

Still cautious

Inflationary pressures are easing, with average hourly earnings growth declining to 3.35% in June, for Production and Non-Supervisory Employees, and 3.14% for Total Private sector.

Average Wage Rates

But this warns that economic growth is slowing. Annual growth in hours worked has slowed to 1.25%, suggesting a similar decline in GDP growth for the second quarter.

Real GDP and Hours Worked

Jobs growth held steady at 1.5% for the 12 months ended June 2019, after a decline from 2.0% in January.

Payroll Growth

Further decline in jobs growth is likely in the months ahead and a fall below 1.0% would warn that recession is imminent.

The Case Shiller index warns that growth in housing prices is slowing.

Case Shiller Index

Growth in construction expenditure (adjusted for inflation) has stalled.

Construction Expenditure/CPI

Retail sales growth is faltering.

Retail Sales

Units of light vehicle sales has stalled.

Light Vehicle Sales

And capital goods orders (adjusted for inflation) are faltering.

Manufacturers Orders for Capital Goods

One of the few bright spots is corporate bond spreads — the difference between lowest investment grade (Baa) and equivalent Treasury yields — still low at 2.3%, indicating that credit risk is benign.

Corporate Bond spreads

The S&P 500 broke through 2950 and is testing 3000. The 3000 level is an important watershed, double the 2000 and 2007 highs at 1500 (1552 and 1576 to be exact), and I expect strong resistance.

S&P 500

A rising Trend Index indicates buying pressure but this seems to be mainly stock repurchases and institutional buying. Retail money, as indicated by investment flows into ETFs, favors fixed income over equities despite the low yields.

ETF Flows source: ETF.com

It’s still a good time to be cautious.

The prevailing wisdom is that markets are always right. I take the opposite position. I assume that markets are always wrong……I watch out for telltale signs that a trend may be exhausted. Then I disengage from the herd and look for a different investment thesis. Or, if I think the trend has been carried to excess, I may probe going against it. Most of the time we are punished if we go against the trend. Only at an inflection point are we rewarded.

~ George Soros

Australia needs to break the downward spiral

Ross Gittins, Economics Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, sums up Australia’s predicament:

“The problem is, the economy seems to be running out of puff because it’s caught in a vicious circle: private consumption and business investment can’t grow strongly because there’s no growth in real wages, but real wages will stay weak until stronger growth in consumption and investment gets them moving.

Policy has to break this cycle. But, as [RBA governor] Lowe now warns in every speech he gives, monetary policy (lower interest rates) isn’t still powerful enough to break it unaided. Rates are too close to zero, households are too heavily indebted, and it’s already clear that the cost of borrowing can’t be the reason business investment is a lot weaker than it should be.

That leaves the budget as the only other instrument available. The first stage of the tax cuts will help, but won’t be nearly enough…..”

Cutting already-low interest rates is unlikely to cure faltering consumption and business investment. Low wage growth and a deteriorating jobs market are root causes of the downward spiral and not much will change until these are addressed.

Low unemployment is misleading. Underemployment is growing. Trained barristers working as baristas may be an urban legend but there is an element of truth. The chart below shows underemployment in Australia as a percentage of total employment.

Australia: Underemployment % of Total Employment

How to halt the spiral

Tax cuts are an expensive sugar hit. The benefit does not last and may be frittered away in paying down personal debt or purchasing imported items like flat-screen TVs and smart phones. Tax cuts are also expensive because government is left with debt on its balance sheet and no assets to show for it.

Infrastructure spending can also be wasteful — like school halls and bridges to nowhere — but if chosen wisely can create productive assets that boost employment and build a healthy portfolio of income-producing assets to offset the debt incurred.

The RBA has already done as much as it can — and more than it should. Further rate cuts, or God forbid, quantitative easing, are not going to get us out of the present hole. What they will do is further distort price signals, leading to even greater malinvestment and damage to the long-term economy.

What the country needs is a long-term infrastructure plan with bipartisan support. Infrastructure should be a national priority. There is too much at stake for leadership to take a short-term focus, with an eye on the next election, rather than consensus-building around a long-term strategy with buy-in from both sides of the house.

If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall

Annual employment growth is falling while average hourly earnings growth remains high. This is typical. Ahead of the last two recessions (gray bars below), average hourly earnings growth (green) held steady while employment growth (blue) declined.

Employment Growth & Average Hourly Wage Rate

If annual employment growth (blue line on the above chart) falls below 1.0% then a Fed rate cut is almost guaranteed. Not something to celebrate though, as the gray bars and further job losses illustrate.

Declining growth in hours worked points to lower GDP growth in the second quarter.

Real GDP & Hours Worked

From Bob Doll at Nuveen:

“China is taking a tough stance toward the U.S. on trade. Chinese officials appear open to ongoing negotiations, but a recently released statement denies the country’s role in intellectual property theft, blames the U.S. for negotiation breakdowns and calls out the damage done to the American economy as a result of the dispute. All of this suggests that trade issues will persist for some time.”

The CCP is upset that they are now being called out for bad behavior when this should have been addressed years ago. Conflict can no longer be avoided and is likely to last for a generation or more.

“On Monday, US President Trump told reporters that he would impose tariffs on an additional USD 300 billion of Chinese goods if Xi Jinping doesn’t meet with him in Japan.” ~ Trivium China, June 12, 2019

Trump is doing his best to kill any chance of a trade deal. He is making it impossible for Xi to turn up for a G20 meeting. Kow-towing to Trump would totally undermine Xi’s standing in China.

Xi wants a trade deal that is a handful of empty promises, so the CCP can continue on their present course. The US wants an enforceable undertaking, so that the CPP is forced to change course. Chances of both achieving what they want are negligible.

Both sides need to guard against economic war (time to call it what it is) slipping into a full-scale conflict. All it takes is a spark that sets off tit-for-tat escalation where neither side will back down.

Proxies such as North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are especially dangerous as they are capable of dragging great powers into direct confrontation (think Serbia before WWI, Korea after WWII).

Wannabe great powers like Russia will also do their best to foment conflict between their larger rivals. Stalin achieved this with the Korean War in the 1950s and Vladimir Putin is more than capable of attempting the same. The world is a dangerous place.

Upside potential for stocks is declining while downside risks are growing. Investors are flowing out of equities and into Treasuries despite minimal yield (10-year yield is negative after inflation and tax).

Stocks are being supported by buybacks but that can only continue for as long as cash flows (from earnings) hold up. Buybacks plus dividends for the S&P 500 exceeded reported earnings by more than $100 billion in Q4 2018.

S&P 500 Buybacks, Dividends & Reported Earnings

That is unsustainable. If earnings undershoot, stocks will fall.